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If we could talk to the animals, what might they tell us about politics?

Jane Goodall is one of many scientists who have revealed how much there is to learn from animals about social organisation and communication. AAP/Julian Smith

To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental about both animals and us. – Frans De Waal

Some time ago I began reading scientific journals like Insectes Sociaux and Animal Behaviour, and books like Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy. What caught my attention was the vocabulary that some authors use to describe the behaviours of certain animals.

Scientists borrow from the language of democracy. They do this to represent politics within animal societies. Some examples of the words used include: voting, consensus, decision-making, culture, morality, social group, quorum sensing, communication, conflict resolution and majority (as in “majority rules”).

Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria ‘talk’ to organise themselves communally.

The use of this language to describe animal behaviour isn’t common across most of the history of the natural sciences. Scientists, as the primatologist Frans De Waal shares in the video below, tended to paint a bleaker picture of animal societies. These genetic relatives of ours lived by domination, tyranny and ruthless survival.

Frans de Waal on animal morality.

Or did they? De Waal argues:

For decades, scenarios of human evolution have depicted our ancestors as ‘killer apes’, progressing from aggression to hunting and warfare. While work on some monkeys and apes (notably baboons and chimpanzees) supported this view, studies of the most recently recognised ape species, the bonobo [Pan paniscus], both in the wild and in captivity, certainly do not.

Bonobos challenge previous assumptions that our nearest ancestors were male-centric and naturally violent or oppressive. Bonobos, to the contrary, are led by females and communicate using facial expressions, body-language and various high-pitch sounds. Two individuals in conflict, for example, instead of violently attacking each other, usually communicate without interrupting one another and sometimes resolve their conflict by hugging or through sexual intercourse.

Bonobos make peace.

Bonobos are today renowned for their achievements in peaceful conflict resolution and sensitivity to others. If we had never crossed paths with either chimpanzees or baboons, but only with bonobos, perhaps we’d have developed an utterly different perspective on our progenitors. As de Waal observes:

We would at present most likely believe that early hominids lived in female-centred societies in which … warfare was rare or absent.

Scientists, through their discoveries (like finding the bonobos, who weren’t really on the radar until the 1930s), create a fuller picture of how animals get things done. This is sometimes referred to as animals being political – that is, the complex set of activities and behaviours some species adopt to resolve conflict and to maintain order in the group, which is often crucial to their survival.

Thomas Seeley discusses honeybee decision-making.

Of course, talk of “politics” in animal societies, of an [alpha-male]( chimpanzee being a “tyrant” or a group of bonobos settling their conflicts “democratically”, invites a perennial critique. Scientists who talk about animals doing politics inevitably have to face the question of personification. Is what we are observing in certain animal societies really politics and not just a scientist imposing human traits on other animals?

My defence to this tilt is to state that just because we are using words from the language of democracy to describe animal behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that some animals are democratic or despotic. They might be, though. And giving them the benefit of the doubt, by representing them in this way, can lead to some interesting outcomes.

In particular, one outcome is that we can draw inspiration from how animals get things done cooperatively and peacefully. Just as an architect can get design inspiration from a forest, or an engineer can create a new material inspired by shapes found beneath the seas, maybe we can get new ideas about how to practise democracy or live democratically from other animals that we represent as “being good democrats”.

A slime mould shows ‘co-operative behaviour’ when its many single-celled organisms join together.

As we continue to think of humans not as a species in isolation but rather a species that shares a genetic code with most (if not all) life on this planet, we start to think about how we evolved our own politics.

Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott argue that no theory of where we humans developed our politics incorporates “the innate part of the equation regarding human biological development”. That is to say:

… why humans developed as they have and how their political preferences and social actions may be decisively influenced by their biological needs and drives. Research on human political behaviour will be incomplete until it takes into account the evolutionary, neurological and genetic foundations of human traits.

I wonder if we picked up, from a genetic perspective, our limited ways of behaving politically from animals (and maybe even also plants!) way back before humans walked on this earth.

Experimental plant ecologist J.C. Cahill explains that plants show interactive behaviour.

We had to come from somewhere and it’s unlikely that we developed being autocratic or being democratic out of a vacuum. That we can make representations about autocratic behaviour or democratic behaviour in animals (beyond primates) makes me think that, yes, “man” is a political animal, but that many other animals are also political in their own ways.

We should also be sensitive to the fact that centuries of self-centred rhetoric have put our species on a pedestal of short-sighted uniqueness. It might be about time for us to stop thinking about humans as the chosen species on earth, superior to all others.

What would happen if we changed our attitude toward animals: to consider that they are, more than ever imagined, like us or us like them? Would that change the way we treat animals and other non-humans?

Maybe we can draw inspiration from other forms of life on this earth. Maybe we can learn from the techniques they have perfected – often over millions of years of evolution.

Last Universal Common Ancestor or LUCA.

And maybe, just maybe, we might start to think of politics not as a human invention but rather as an everyday aspect to life itself.

So, to end these musings, a riddle:

  1. Once I was ape, but now I am “man”. From where did I learn, to do what I can?

  2. I am an animal, and share many habits, with those as different, as fishes and rabbits.

  3. One group votes here, another decides there. To which do I refer: human or hare?

This is an edited version of a paper presented during the session Unique to Humans? Rethinking Anthropocentrism, part of the Festival of Democracy organised by the Sydney Democracy Network, University of Sydney.

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